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Sex gangs preying on children in Brighton and Hove
Buy this photo » Gemma Doughty is project co-ordinator at WISE
Teenage girls are being lured from shopping centres, plied with drink and drugs and raped by gangs of sadistic older men.
Many are taken to special “party houses” in Brighton and Hove before being forced to perform sex acts against their will.
Other vulnerable girls, some as young as 12, are being picked up on city streets, groomed by older men and driven in cars to sex parties in London.
Gemma Doughty is project co-ordinator at WISE, a Sussex Central YMCA service set up in Brighton and Hove two years ago to help young victims of grooming and exploitation.
She saw ten cases last week where girls between the ages of 14 to 16 claimed to have been sexually abused by organised gangs of men in the city.
In the past year, 23 other cases in Brighton and Hove have been reported to the WISE project.
The fact is many of these girls have had a tough time and are looking for love – but all they find is abuseGemma Doughty, project co-ordinator at WISE
The news comes in the week that children’s minister and MP for East Worthing and Shoreham Tim Loughton, said the number of child abuse cases that make it to court are “just the tip of the iceberg”.
Miss Doughty said: “There are places in Brighton and Hove specifically set up for the grooming of young people but because Brighton is a relaxed city the problem is being hidden.
"It’s only now that we are uncovering the scale of what’s going on.
“There has certainly been a massive rise in the numbers of cases reported to us over the past year or so.”
The groups of older men find their victims wherever young girls gather.
Then they lure them to the “party houses” where the girls’ drinks often get spiked and they can be raped.
Miss Doughty said: “We’ve been raising awareness of this issue and this may account for why this hidden world is now coming to light.”
Almost two-thirds of the victims referred to the WISE project have learning disabilities.
Many have other issues in their lives which mean they crave attention, leaving them open to abuse and exploitation.
At the “party houses”, these underage girls are offered a place where they can freely drink alcohol and take drugs – but soon the older men demand sexual favours in return.
The grooming process can take place within one day or over a long period of time.
Often the victims are bribed for sex with an offer of a place to stay, free food or money.
Typically, ‘friendships’ are formed and phone numbers or social media details are exchanged, leading on to further grooming and invites to “parties”.
'Scared and threatened'
Miss Doughty said: “The guys that do this are from all ethnicities and many are from a younger age group than people might expect.
“We speak to girls who have been passed around numbers of guys and forced to do things they don’t want to do.
“They feel scared and threatened. Often by the time the abuse starts they will have told the guy secrets about themselves.
“The fact is many of these girls have had a tough time and are looking for love – but all they find is abuse.”
Jenny, 16, from Brighton, was taken to houses and repeatedly raped after being picked up from the streets.
Older men passed her around at sex parties after she was plied with drink and drugs.
She said: “I spent my childhood in the care system, was in and out of different schools and had no time to form proper relationships.
“I was always ending up with street drinkers and other people I shouldn’t have been hanging around with.
“Then guys I’d never met started picking me up in their cars and taking me off to their houses in the city where other men were there waiting for me.
“I just wanted some love and attention so I went along with it, although I didn’t want to do any of the things they made me do.
“Now I haven’t got any self esteem or confidence.”
Jenny, not her real name, was referred to staff at YMCA Wise who are giving her counselling and helping her find a place to live.
Miss Doughty said many victims have “slipped through the net” in recent years because of their reluctance to talk to the police and a lack of awareness among child support agencies.
Now, when workers suspect a child is being abused, the victim is referred to the WISE project for counselling and support.
The scheme was set up in response to recommendations in a 2007 Barnados report into sexual exploitation of children in Sussex.
It is the only service devoted to tackling the issue in Brighton and Hove and is funded by Sussex Central YMCA, the city council Comic Relief and Sussex Police.
Detective Inspector Lee Horner, from Sussex Police’s specialist investigation unit, said: “All police forces receive reports of sexual exploitation on vulnerable young girls and Brighton is no exception.
“The Child Protection Team at Brighton is working very closely with the WISE project and other partners to develop our responses to such incidents, support those affected and deal with the perpetrators.”
Jon Brown, NSPCC’s head of strategy for sexual abuse, said: “Any type of sexual grooming and child exploitation seriously damages young people’s lives.
“It leaves vulnerable children at the mercy of unscrupulous men who pretend to be their friends but in reality are dangerous predators.
“It is a corrosive problem that needs further research and concerted multi-agency action to help those affected.”
A spokesman for Brighton and Hove City Council said: “The council’s child protection teams work tirelessly to support victims and potential victims of child sexual exploitation and other forms of abuse.”
Anyone who has fallen victim to this crime can contact the NSPCC through its ChildLine service on 0800 1111.
If you’re an adult and have concerns about a child’s welfare then we would urge you to call the NSPCC’s helpline on 0808 800 5000.
If you need to talk about child exploitation, contact the WISE project on 01273 222583 or email email@example.com.